Giorgia Meloni is suing Gomorrah writer for criminal defamation over comments about her migrant policy
Roberto Saviano and Giorgia Meloni. The Italian PM was urged to drop the case against the writer. Photograph: Alberto Pizzoli/AFP/Getty Images
The Italian writer Roberto Saviano is standing trial on Tuesday for calling Italy’s new prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, a “bastard” after she said NGO boats that had attempted to rescue refugees should be sunk.
Meloni, the leader of Brothers of Italy, a party with neo-fascist origins, who had said Rome should “repatriate migrants and sink the boats that rescued them”, sued Saviano for criminal defamation, and last year a judge in Rome ruled that the writer should be tried.
Saviano, who lives under police escort and has been in hiding from the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra, since 2006 after being threatened by mobsters following publication of his book Gomorrah, faces up to three years in prison.
Meloni’s action came after the author, in 2020, was asked on the political TV chatshow Piazzapulita for a comment on the death of a six-month-old baby from Guinea after a shipwreck in the central Mediterranean.
Including in his remarks the leader of the far-right Northern League, Matteo Salvini, who as interior minister introduced a decree imposing fines of up to €50,000 (£44,000) on NGO rescue boats bringing people to Italy, Saviano said: “I just want to say to Meloni, and Salvini, you bastards! How could you?”
“I’m sick of witnessing this disgusting profiteering by Saviano,” Meloni replied after Saviano’s TV appearance. “Is it normal that this serial hater is allowed to defame, without the right to reply, people who are not present on the talkshow? I have already asked my lawyers to proceed with a legal action against him.”
In a previous interview with the Guardian, Saviano, who has repeatedly criticised the treatment of migrants in Italy, said: “If I am sentenced, I will respond to my words, but I will never regret having lost my peace of mind and perhaps even many readers for defending the voiceless.”
Numerous writers’ and literary associations have expressed their support for Saviano . The PEN International president, Burhan Sönmez, urged Meloni to drop all criminal defamation charges against Saviano and to abide by Italy’s national and international obligations to uphold freedom of expression.
“We urge you to drop the case against him and to do everything in your power to support investigative journalism and independent media,” Sönmez said in an open letter.
“Criminal defamation lawsuits exhaust their victims. They rob them of their time, of their money, of their vital energy. Crucially, they are punitive and can lead to self-censorship and discourage the investigative journalism that is so necessary in a healthy and functioning democracy.
“They constitute a threat to freedom of expression – which is enshrined in Italy’s domestic and international human rights obligations. As the prime minister of Italy, pursing your case against him would send a chilling message to all journalists and writers in the country, who may no longer dare to speak out for fear of reprisals.”
“Saviano is not alone,” Sönmez added. “We stand with him and will continue to campaign until all criminal defamation charges against him are dropped, and his right to peacefully express his views is upheld once and for all.”
Tuesday’s hearing comes after Meloni, in the first test of her government’s migration policy, enacted a controversial anti-migration plan, which provides for the pushback of mostly male asylum seekers of adult age rescued in the central Mediterranean whom Italian authorities do not deem to be in need of international protection.
Hundreds of people onboard two NGO rescue boats were prevented from disembarking and left on the ship for two days, with volunteers reporting people sleeping on the decks, as fever-inducing infections and scabies spread.